The most baffling aspect of President Trump’s election and administration, to most observers, is the apparent inconsistency of his behavior with the proclaimed values of much of his voting base. The only people not apparently puzzled by this are the most dedicated of those supporters and those of his opponents who were already prepared to write off those supporters as backward, ignorant, or villainous. It was in some measure easier to explain immediately after the 2016 presidential election, when the Democratic field had – with rumored corruptions of its own – narrowed itself down to nominating Hilary Clinton, who ran an unimaginative (and it turned out, lazy) campaign leading to an election whose candidates in the public mind were “not Trump” and “not Clinton”. While few outside his die-hard coterie expected great things from a Trump presidency, very few of any political stripe appear to have anticipated the chaotic nature of his administration or Trump’s own inability and indifference with regard to limiting his pursuit of personal goals or grudges.
Despite these problems, Trump’s popularity – relative to what’s necessary to run a reasonable campaign – does not appear to have gone anywhere, and the Republican party appears as firmly supportive of Trump as the Democratic party appears likely to be of its final choice this year. One might have supposed a year or so ago that the Republicans would conclude that, having avoided Hilary, they could quietly drop Trump – or at least go through the motions of holding a regular primary election, a practice which the party holding the White House has avoided in recent years but which could have quieted some concerns about legitimacy. Conservative commentators, while disappointed, are at least familiar enough with the Republican party to follow the electoral logic; progressive pundits remain consternated – particularly after a party-line impeachment process failed to remove Trump from the presidency. (The impeachment aired quite a bit of Trump’s own disregard for legal procedures, and Republicans failed to argue convincingly – which was their best defense – that the process instigated by Democrats had been just as flawed procedurally. However, Republican arguments to that effect from both congressmen and conservative media were roundly ignored or dismissed, generally without rebuttal, in most outlets.)
I suggest that Trump retains support for much the same reasons the Democratic party retains support throughout many of our cities suffering from flawed if not outright corrupt planning and administration – a fact which has baffled some conservatives for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention to politics: Trump makes gestures towards the things his base considers important, while his opponents have either a history or a declared intention of ignoring or even attacking those things.
It’s enlightening to approach the question by asking what items Trump’s administration has been most adamant about. I count four general items: support for the pro-life movment; appointment of judges committed to law; appreciation for the role played by and sacrifices of American servicemen (whatever one may think of the dangers his policy exacerbates); and distrust of immigrants. The first two are the most important basics of American conservatism to the extent it exists as a principled political program. The third is an American universal – though it indicates on reflection, as Chesterton said of English pride in their empire a century ago, that America may not have much else to be proud of.
The last in the abstract is baffling. Christianity requires hospitality to the traveler, foreigner, persecuted, and dispossessed: from Abraham to Ruth to Christ himself those forced or called from their homes have played integral parts in salvation. However, in the current context it can be explained at least three ways. The most charitable is to recall concerns about law, and the fact that American law is not currently hospitable to strangers. This is an argument for changing the law: but in the meantime, most conservative Christians would be inclined to say that laws which do not demand actual sin should be followed, and illegal immigrants are therefore lawbreakers. The fact that not many actually care to change the laws can be laid either to other concerns – or to ignorance of the severity of the laws, which are rather convoluted as well as unforgiving.
The least charitable explanation is that Republicans have attracted the majority of America’s remaining racists. This is largely, I suspect, true, because the Democratic party has made it fairly clear that the only racism allowed in its ranks is antisemitism. However, I am not convinced it applies to more than a minority – and not a very sizeable one – within Republican ranks. In between the principled and the wicked, I suspect, stands the majority distrust of foreigners, living here or not: a feeling that there is something very insecure about the American identity right now, and that bringing in more and more persons fiercely (it is assumed) attached to their own identities, without attempting to instruct them in The American Way, is tantamount to cultural suicide. Pragmatism does not justify immorality: it does, however explain why an unexamined stance on the matter may not produce guilt. The obvious thing to do is hard to examine fairly to see if it might be wrong.
And the fact of the matter is that in contrast to these four positions, the views advocated by Trump’s opponents are certifiably insane. The Democratic party has all but ostracized all pro-life advocates from its ranks. The progressive theorists for the last century, from Wilson and those who inspired him to today’s activist judges who keep trying to sideline Trump’s legal – if morally dubious – orders, treat law as merely an expression of common will that loses its force – not just its practical force, which is a truism, but its authority – if that will is understood to have changed: and then take it on themselves to interpret the so-called “common” will. The military – as mentioned above – goes largely uncriticized, but the few who admirably do dare to criticize it tend not just to villify particular excesses but to treat the American military as one of today’s great collections of villains. And, finally, Democratic politicians praise all variety of different cultures – being particularly, um, tactful about Islamic ones – while treating America’s Christian and European heritage with contempt and suggestions of legal repressions to come, in the name of coddling and preferring just about any vice, but especially the sexual ones.
Trump’s actions are not the actions of a responsible candidate. His character before election should have disqualified him to the public mind for office: his attitudes in office have been self-aggrandizing, insecure, and intemperate. Apart from likely misuses of his official prerogatives, his pardoning of war criminals – one not even tried yet – is inexcusable. And yet – especially when throughout their attempts to bring these charges home his opponents have badly muddied the procedural waters – since Trump retains a consistent message on these pieties of his base, and his opponents are determined that most if not all of those values are incorrect, this is why Trump retains the support he does. Trump’s personal foibles and misdeeds will continue not to count for much when balanced against the promise to institute a regime that disdains all of the values Trump claims he will protect.